Year after year, African countries – with exceptions such as Mauritius, Botswana, Cape Verde and, recently, Rwanda – are among the most corrupt in the global indexes that measure these things.
Rampant corruption undermines economic growth, development and peace. Research by the International Monetary Fund showed countries with high levels of corruption frequently have low tax revenues, low per capita income, high levels of poverty and low social indicators.
From trends observed by World Bank researchers it appears developing countries rich in natural resources have a high incidence of corruption related to those resources.
Countries heavily dependent on foreign development aid also seem to have higher levels of corruption.
In countries with great inequality between rich and poor, especially where the wealthy elite secure their income from state patronage and resources or by other questionable means, a culture of corruption is encouraged.
Corruption also appears to be high in countries where governments with good intentions redistribute assets, subsidies and services to disadvantaged groups.
The World Bank put it eloquently: “The flow of money creates corruption opportunities that undermine the very purpose of government intervention.”
Winner-takes-all electoral systems, which allow the victorious party or leader to take control of all electoral seats and government positions, which is the case in most African countries, also opens the way for corruption.
Furthermore, corruption thrives in electoral systems where parliamentary representatives are accountable to political parties and leaders, rather than directly to those who voted for them. Voters unhappy with their public representatives cannot recall them – only the party can do so. This reduces the accountability of elected officials.
Graft also thrives in countries where appointments to the public service, procurement and tenders are not meritocratic, fair and transparent.
In nations where there is a need for affirmative action, redistribution to and empowerment of formerly disadvantaged groups, unless these are done transparently, fairly and honestly, there is scope for graft.
Where government bureaucracy is inefficient, individuals often resort to bribing officials to bypass red tape or get routine public services done.
Corruption also flourishes when leaders are perceived to be corrupt – and getting away with it.
Research by Ajit Mishra showed dominance of corrupt individuals in countries or organisations leads to broad-based corruption over time.
When leaders are dishonest with out sanction it reinforces a cycle of corruption across society. Ordinary officials, from the traffic warden to the Home Affairs Department desk official, engage in corrupt practices because the government and political leaders do so. Corruption becomes endemic and acceptable across the society.
The World Bank concluded: “An individual chooses to be corrupt because everyone else is corrupt and this is an accepted social norm”.
In many African countries corruption is so entrenched improvements, for example in areas such as health and education, “do not necessarily require higher public spending but rather better control over existing resources that are being diverted through corrupt channels”.
Corruption causes flawed economic, social and political outcomes from public resources.
Researchers Vito Tanzi and Hamid Davoodi in a study of developing countries concluded: “Corruption leads to allocations in favour of less-productive investment projects … thereby reducing the quality and productivity of existing infrastructure.”
If a country is perceived to have high levels of corruption, domestic and foreign investors will be reluctant to buy in for the long term or in bricks-and-mortar assets, which can create jobs, growth and wealth.
Talented individuals who could contribute to the economy by starting new businesses do not do so, because it seems easier to live off the patronage of the state.
Corruption threatens the stability of African states as it leads to public violence, extremism and, increasingly, in religious fundamentalism as those robbed of resources seek redress.
How can African countries effectively combat corruption?
They must lead by example, governing honestly, fairly and accountably.
Those who engage in corruption must be shamed by African society.
Governments must prosecute corrupt individuals, especially if they are politically connected.
Individuals and firms that engage in corrupt behaviour to secure government contracts must be blacklisted.
African governments must become less secretive. They must increase transparency in decision-making. There have to be regular and public audits of public sector projects, tenders and appointments. Government decisions on budgets, procurement and contracts must be in the open.
Governments must make information easily available to ordinary citizens.
In many developing countries, open public meetings allowing citizen participation in public spending have reduced corruption and improved service delivery.
Countries must introduce rules that compel public disclosure of political party funding.
Elected officials must disclose how they voted in parliament, what positions they took in debates and in drafting laws.
Those standing for public office, employed by government and oversight and prosecuting authorities, must publicly disclose their income and assets.
The spheres of politics, business, watchdog institutions and the public service must be clearly separated. Conflict of interest laws are a good start.
Civil society, the media and citizens must actively monitor development projects, public appointments and contracts. Persistent reporting of corruption by the media can be a deterrent.